Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Relational Psychoanalysis: A Historical Background

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Relational Psychoanalysis: A Historical Background

Article excerpt


"Relational psychoanalysis" is not a new school, but rather a broad integrative orientation focusing on Self and Other. Its origins are explored, with an emphasis on the generative dyads: Freud-Ferenczi and Klein-Winnicott. Discontent with both classical and interpersonal paradigms has led to its ascendency. Several of its current focuses are outlined.


Relational psychoanalysis, I hope, will never become a school in the traditional meaning, but will rather help in molding a professional and intellectual climate free of the constraining impact of "schools." For many years we got used to thinking of psychoanalytic theory as divided into "schools." Many textbooks have separate chapters on the interpersonal school (defined in older books as "neo-Freudian"), on ego psychology as a school, and in newer versions--on self psychology or on the Kleinian school.

To be fair, "schools" have made positive contributions, in allowing a multiplicity of voices, and safeguarding against a repressive uniformity. Yet, at the same time, they produced inbred groups whose members espouse a single point of view and create their own vocabulary, own journals, own training programs. Winnicott attempted to combat this separatism in his moving letters to Melanie Klein and to Anna Freud,1 who demanded loyalty from their followers even though they all functioned within the seemingly unified British Psychoanalytic Society.

One expression of the partisan impact of school identification is in the way the history of psychoanalysis has been written. Many books and papers--the best known is Jones's Freud biography2--express the "orthodox" story line regarding the development of psychoanalysis.3 In narratives following this line, Freud and Freud's thought are idealized, and all other figures are judged according to their supposed loyalty to Freud. Dissent is seen as destructive, and ruthless ambition, pathological narcissism or juvenile rebelliousness are attributed to dissenters (often defined as deviationists; for Jones, especially Ferenczi and Rank).

This "orthodox" story line regarding the history of psychoanalysis has a mirror image in the equally biased "heterodox" story line, which puts Freud and most of his followers down, while idealizing one or a few dissidents. This is prominent in Jungian and Adlerian literature, but also in Clara Thompson's 1950 book Psychoanalysis: Evolution and Development,4 which--in spite of its all-encompassing title--completely disregards authors such as Hartmann and Melanie Klein (already major figures in American and British psychoanalysis) in its effort to show that the only innovations in the psychoanalysis of that time were those offered by Sullivan and his circle.

Both of these story lines encourage dogmatism, and stand in the way of a more integrative and dialectical view, needed for a thoughtful critical perspective on the history of our profession. Such a perspective may enable us to see what were the fruitful contributions both of Freud and of his antagonists, what was valuable both in traditional views and in radical challenges. It would hopefully lead to a richer contemporary understanding of the treatment process, transcending the polemics of the past.


Most psychoanalytic authors, being complex individuals, produce work characterized by inherent tensions and even inner contradictions, rather than by a simple expression of a one-sided view. The best example is Freud, who is often torn between his positivistic upbringing (expressed in the attempt to create a general "metapsychology") and his hermeneutic tendencies (his "literary" investment in figuring out the nuances of an individual's life story); between his ambition to be accepted by the medical profession and his refusal to accept its concepts and rules; between his wish to develop a purely intrapsychic model ("one-person psychology") and his frequent awareness of the impact of interpersonal and social processes ("twoperson" and "multiple-person" psychologies); and between his hope to develop a standardized technique (images of the therapist as a surgeon working in a sterile environment, as a "blank screen"), and his personal style as a sociable, expressive, and usually flexible individual (as evidenced in "the Rat Man's meal" and in many episodes recounted by his patients). …

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